3 Ways to Write a Chorus

The chorus normally presents the main idea of the song in a catchy and memorable way.

It’s often the part listeners wait for, and the point when everyone sings along.

There are many ways to write a chorus. Let’s look at three great ways to get started:

  1. Start with your central lyric line (the title or main idea).
  2. Reuse the chord progression from the verse.
  3. Start from a different progression from the verse.

Between these three approaches, you’ll have a lot of room to explore!

1. Start with your central lyric line (the title or main idea)

Since choruses often focus on a single lyric line, this can be a great place to start. The idea is to come up with ideas for a line and sing different possible melodies until you capture the right feeling.

You can use this approach anywhere you go, as long as you carry around a device for recording audio (and I’m guessing you carry around a phone).

Choose your central line

The first step is to come up wih a single line that resonates with you.

As you think of lines, try saying them over and over. That will give you a clue as to whether people will enjoy hearing it repeated.

Keep in mind that this line doesn’t need to be particularly clever or poetic! For example, look at these lines used in some very popular songs:

  • “Nothing compares to you.”
  • “I heard it through the grapevine.”
  • “All you need is love.”
  • “I will always love you.”
  • “With or without you”
  • “Under pressure”

Taken on their own, these lines don’t sound all that interesting. But they work very well in the context of their songs.

And as the last two examples show, the line doesn’t even need to contain a full phrase.

Of course, choruses can contain surprising, strange, or poetic lyrics. But my point is that you don’t need to get caught up on that to write great songs.

Sing different melodies for your line

Once you have your line, it’s time to start singing. Your goal is to come up with a melody that supports the idea of the line.

Listen to how the line sounds when you just say it. Where does your voice go up or down? Are there words you emphasize? Does one word stand out as more important than the others?

These are things you can try to imitate when trying out melodies.

Or you can focus more on how the line makes you feel and experiment with melodic ideas that capture that feeling.

Record your favorite ideas into your song ideas backlog so you can come back to them later.

Come up with a (partial) chord progression

Once you’ve discovered a line and a melody that works, it’s time to figure out a chord progression that fits them.

If you play guitar or piano, you can sit with your instrument and just experiment with chords until you find some that work.

If you normally write in a DAW on your computer, record the line and loop it. You can then try programming chords in a separate MIDI track.

Depending on your level of experience, you might find it easier to try out single notes first. Once you find a sequence of single notes that sounds good under the melody, try out chords that include those notes.

I’ve written in more detail about finding chords for major key melodies here.

To repeat or not to repeat

Sometimes the same line is repeated throughout the chorus (possibly with slight changes). And sometimes, the line is repeated before or after other lyrics.

If you’re not going to repeat it for the whole section, then your line is just a seed for the whole chorus. But now you have a great starting point.

Even if you’re going to just repeat the line, you don’t have to repeat the same chords (though you can!). Try changing the chords under each repeat and see if that creates a more interesting effect.

2. Reuse the chord progression from the verse

Starting from the melody is one effective way to come up with catchy lines for your chorus. But you can also start with a chord progression.

It’s not uncommon for the verse and chorus of a song to share the same chord progression. So if you already have a verse, you can try reusing those chords.

You might think this would mean they’d blend together, but there are a number of ways to make the chorus stand out.

In another post, we talked about some of the ways a chorus is different from a verse. Here are some of the high level points:

  • There are fewer lyrics in the chorus overall. They normally state the main idea of the song (often the title).
  • The energy is higher in the chorus, and there are normally more voices and instruments present.
  • The chorus is more stable than other parts, normally starting and/or ending on the tonic (or home) chord. It gives us the feeling we’ve “arrived”.
  • The chords often change faster (this is called a “faster harmonic rhythm”).

These points give us some options for making our chorus stand out from the verses.

Making the chorus stand out from the verses

The same chord progression can sound pretty different if you change the accompanying melody and the instruments, style, energy, etc.

If your verse uses longer lines to tell the story, the short and simpler lines of the chorus will let the chords and arrangement breathe.

If the new vocal line on its own doesn’t provide the contrast you expect, you can try adding backup vocal harmonies, vocal effects (like an echo or chorus), or a doubled vocal, among other options. This can help signal that this section is of particular importance.

If you find the contrast is there but the transition from verse to chorus is boring, you might try putting a pre-chorus in between.

We’ll talk in more detail about pre-choruses in a future post, but in short, your pre-chorus could use contrasting chords and higher tension than the verse to signal we’re going somewhere.

Another option is to use the same chords, but speed them up, for example, by changing them twice as quickly. This will naturally lead you to write a melody distinctive from the verse.

Just remember that you don’t need to speed up the melody. In fact, repeating the same slower melody over quickly changing chords can create a lot of harmonic interest.

3. Start from a different progression from the verse

There are countless songs you could write by sharing a progression between verse and chorus. But one thing you might notice is that it makes the verse and chorus feel closely connected.

Maybe you want to create a greater distance between them (particularly if your lyrics indicate a stronger narrative or emotional shift).

Let’s consider two of the ways to create this distance:

  1. Use the same key between verse and chorus, but use a different starting chord.
  2. Write the chorus in the relative minor (or relative major) key of the verse.

Same key, but different starting chord

If your verse is in a major or minor key, it will probably use some combinaion of six main chords in that key.

For example, here are the six chords for the key of C major. I’m annotating them with Roman numerals, which could be used to transpose them into any other major key:

C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi

Let’s say your verse starts on one of these chords. The idea here is to simply start your chorus on a different one. Keep in mind that it’s common for the chorus to begin and/or end on the I chord.

If you’re not sure what key your verse is in, here’s a quick way to take a guess. Write down the chords from the verse. Look through the rows in the following table for one that contains all your chords:

| I  | ii  | iii | IV  | V  | vi  |
|----|-----|-----|-----|----|-----|
| C  | Dm  | Em  | F   | G  | Am  |
| Db | Ebm | Fm  | Gb  | Ab | Bbm |
| D  | Em  | F#m | G   | A  | Bm  |
| Eb | Fm  | Gm  | Ab  | Bb | Cm  |
| E  | F#m | G#m | A   | B  | C#m |
| F  | Gm  | Am  | Bbm | C  | Dm  |
| F# | G#m | A#m | Bm  | C# | D#m |
| Gb | Abm | Bbm | Bm  | Db | Ebm |
| G  | Am  | Bm  | C   | D  | Em  |
| Ab | Bbm | Cm  | Db  | Eb | Fm  |
| A  | Bm  | C#m | D   | E  | F#m |
| Bb | Cm  | Dm  | Eb  | F  | Gm  |
| B  | C#m | D#m | E   | F# | G#m |

A good first guess is that the first chord of your verse is the key, though this isn’t always true. If that first chord is major, look under the I column.

If the first chord in your verse is minor, look for it under the vi column. The table above is all major keys, but the vi column shows the relative minor key for each major key.

Technically, you will need to emphasize the tonic (home) note throughout for the verse and chorus to be in the same key.

But don’t worry too much about whether you’re really writing in a particular key or picking the “correct chords”. As always, rely on your ears to determine whether your choices are “correct”.

Relative minor or major

To create an even stronger contrast between verse and chorus, try starting your chorus on the relative minor (or relative major, if the verse is in minor).

Every major key has a relative minor (and vice versa)

As alluded to above, every major key has a relative minor that starts on the 6th note in that major scale.

Look at C major again:

I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi
C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am

The sixth chord (vi) is Am. That’s the relative minor of C.

Conversely, the relative major of Am is C.

Here’s a list of some of the relative majors and minors:

MAJOR  MINOR
C      Am
D      Bm
E      C#m
F      Dm
G      Em
A      F#m
B      G#m

You can see them all in the table of major keys above (look at the I and vi columns).

Keep in mind that the relative major and minor use the same collection of six common chords. The difference is that major songs focus on the I and minor songs focus on the vi.

Starting your chorus on the relative minor or major

You can use relative keys to choose a destination for your chorus. If the verse is in major, try the relative minor for the chorus. If the verse is in minor, try the relative major for the chorus.

For example, if you start your verse on F, try starting your chorus on Dm. If you start your verse on Bm, start your chorus on D.

This technique will create a recognizable shift in tone from verse to chorus.

As an example, imagine your verse is written in A. The verse would either begin or end on A, and use chords from this list:

   I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi
   A - Bm - C#m - D  - E - F#m

Write your chorus in F#m, the relative minor. You will still use chords from this list, but now start or end on the F#m chord.

By the way, you don’t need to memorize any of this. You can either write down these tables in a handy notebook, or print out my Chord Progressions Cheat Sheet. Keep them by your side when you’re writing songs for easy lookup.

Wrapping up

Once you have a chord progression in mind, you can try out different candidates for a central line. One option is to speak the line over the chords first, to get a feel for how different ideas sound.

Once you have a line you like, start experimenting by using it to sing melodies that fit the chords. Don’t try to rush this process.

By trying out more ideas, you’ll be more likely to find one that really works well.

This is just a small sampling of the many techniques you could use to write a chorus. But they should give you plenty to work with!

Write better chord progressions.

Chord Progressions Cheatsheet

Quickly get started writing chord progressions, or adding variety to your current approach. Techniques, tables, and sample progressions.

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